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Saturday / Sunday, July 28 - 29, 2001 (p 28)
The Summer Series

by Baudouin Bollaert
translated from the French by Stephen Trussel
1. Maigret in the land of windmills
2. The Stagecoach of the Norwegian Sea
3. Honningsvåg, or Paradise lost




From Holland to the Polar circle, the genesis of Commissioner Maigret

Paradise lost

North Cape. The true one or the false? Another mystery worthy of Maigret. (Photo P. Wysocki / Hémisphères)

(Photo Harlingue-Viollet)
From a 1,000-foot cliff, barren and inhospitable, the English navigator Richard Chancellor, in 1553, and the Italian priest-ethnologist Francesco Negri, in 1664, created a mythical place – North Cape, the northernmost tip of the European continent, 71° 10' 21" N... How could Georges Simenon, early in the year 1930, dedicated to the discovery of Norway, pass up this dizzying headland plunging into the glacial sea? Following Chancellor, Negri and such luminaries as the future Louis-Philippe, King Chulalongkorn of Siam, and the inevitable Thomas Cook, he is therefore on the scene. The curiosity always burning in the father of Maigret will not be extinguished...

Baudouin Bollaert


The end of March. So much for the midnight sun, visible only from May 11 to July 31... But is Simenon, great lover of winter lights, bothered? Not in the least! The famous North Cape sun can only be admired "weather permitting." In reality, two times out of three, tourists find themselves in a thick fog or surrounded by dark clouds. So much so that today, postcard vendors offer models completely black or gray, with the inscription, "I was there, but I didn't see a thing!"

The father of Maigret doesn't say whether he saw any blue in the wintry sky of the time, but he was not taken in by one of the most surprising hoaxes of the century – that another 'North Cape' is the real one! "First," he writes, "it is on an island, which is sufficient to eliminate it from the title of the most northern headland of the continent. And furthermore, it has a colleague that the Norwegians call Cape Nordkyn, solidly connected to the land, which could just as easily pretend to the title." (1)

Simenon prefers to laugh – if the two capes, he notes, look as alike as brothers – white in winter, gray in summer – it is the 'fake' one that "has a mail box", "is celebrated by millions of postcards", and "is sprinkled with champagne every year by tourists."

Have the facts changed any today? Yes, if you consider that an enormous complex – part Futuroscope, part Grévin museum and part Las Vegas, with boutiques, restaurants and a special honeymoon suite – has been constructed on the site, and that the island of Mageroy is now joined to the continent by a tunnel. No, if you admit that the pretender Cape hasn't become any truer than before. On the same island, there is found the more northerly Knivskjelloden (71° 11' 8" N), and, on dry land, it is Kinnaroden that advances furthest north...

All this is happily innocuous: Norway is a land of legends, and that one would go well in an album of trolls, the little demons of local mythology. As for Simenon, he has himself too often played with the truth, rewritten history in his own way, and used stratagems and assumed names in his books, to take offense. Did he know that Louis-Philippe of Orléans, then aged 22, had visited North Cape under the assumed name of Müller? The future king had disembarked in 1795, when the French Revolution was not far off... In any case, in one of stories in the Treize Coupables that Simenon wrote in 1930 for Joseph Kessel's Detective magazine, the main character is called Müller... Coincidence?

The largest town on the island of Mageroy is Honningsvåg – 200 inhabitants in 1930, 3,000 today. The coastal express stops there, of course. Still the same charming scene: wharves on pilings, multi-colored wooden houses, perfectly kept trawlers, and those cod-dryers jocularly called "banana plantations." But Simenon recalls only one thing from his visit – the Gimmle, or as it would be rendered in English, the Paradise.

"You'd never guess," he says. "The Paradise is, quite simply, a night club. There is a room with a player piano and a phonograph. They play waltzes and tangos. (...) As for the waitresses, they are pretty. (...) And if you insist a little, they disappear into a small room and signal you discreetly to follow. Perfect! A brothel, a true brothel in the Glacial sea, at 36° below zero..."

Simenon, the inveterate lover of women, the old flame of Josephine Baker, met one Hungarian waitress there in particular, from that stateless – even shady – world, which had marked him so deeply during his childhood in Liège: his mother had rented out rooms to Eastern European emigrants to make ends meet... people tossed by destiny, who would later populate so many of his novels.

I searched for the Paradise in Honningsvåg, but found only the Corner Cafe and the Noden Club, similar to today's discos. Not surprisingly, for at the end of the war, like most towns in the region, Honningsvåg had been entirely burnt by Germans. Only the small white parish escaped the inferno. An old photo of the time shows it miraculously standing in the midst of the smoking rubble. Doubtless the Paradise, as well, went to ashes...

If it exists, in any case it is in another form – some miles from there, the island of Gjesvaerstappan is a paradise of birds. You can simply board a coaster to make the tour and admire myriad puffins, crested cormorants, petrels, gannets, penguins, guillemots, and down eiders... not to mention sea eagles and pillaging seagulls! Simenon probably saw them as well, since he noted, "birds on certain rocks are so numerous that when they take off, from a distance you would think it was a storm darkening the sky."

Further west, on the route of the coastal express, Hammerfest is another required stop, home to, among others, the Findus factories and the Polar Bear Club (former club of bear hunters). With its population of 10,000, it is called the furthest north city of Europe, another of Norway's "northernmosts": Skarsvag is the northernmost village, and the church of Tromsø the most northern Catholic parish in the world... Obligatory tourism!

At Hammerfest, Simenon made another discovery: "A cabbage, a true vegetable, a fresh vegetable!" He went into ecstasies. Needless to say, today's supermarket displays are filled with them. On the other hand, with regard to drinking, the laws have become more and more rigid. In 1930, Simenon complained about being unable to buy any whisky except from a pharmacist on doctor's orders. In 2001, the government has just stepped up its anti-alcohol battle. A driver who'd had half a Mack – the equivalent of our Kronenbourg – would be liable to a two years' license suspension and the equivalent of a $2,000 fine...

Beyond these travel anecdotes, "little stories with neither head nor tail that one tells among friends," Simenon excels at painting the changes of light characteristic of Norway. "Suddenly, like tacking a boat, it was a sea of pale green, snowy mountains streaming with sunlight – a grandeur which had to be quickly seized, for then the golden light dissolved as an ash-gray veil spread across the water like a curtain," he writes in Le Passager du Polarlys.

Had he seen the minuscule beach at Forsøl, whose white sand and turquoise water are like an arctic Bora-Bora? A tall and very green grass has covered the archaeological site on the way to the strand, where about hundred head of reindeer – which are to Norway as the sacred cows are to India – browse peacefully in the scenery at the tip of the world. In summer, you can swim here, if you enjoy 50° F water...

In the land of the Lapps

The Sámis or Lapps are today completely integrated into the society – they can be found as often working in banks or data processing as at fishing...

Physically, there is almost nothing that distinguishes them from other Norwegians, unless perhaps their cheekbones are slightly more prominent, or they may not be quite so tall. "Do you want to see Lapps? Go to Oslo!" jokes a guide. A way of underlining that the majority of them have abandoned the hard Arctic life and shamanism...

The principal Lapp cities are Kautokeino and Karasjoks, on the plateaus of Finnmark. In one, 80% of inhabitants speak the Sámi language every day; in the other are the local Parliament (39 members) and the main Lapp institutions.

Ah! reindeer... One of Simenon's goals was meet the Lapps or the Sámis – not to be confused with Eskimos – who raise these animals inseparable from the landscape of the North. "They announced the meal, my first Lapp meal," he rejoiced. "And this reindeer, so charming when he pulled my sleigh, here he was served up to me, tough, bitter, swimming in a rancid grease whose odor alone made me feel nauseated. My hosts noted my reaction, and went in search of an old piece of seal meat that they offered me with a gluttonous smile... It was even worse!"

Simenon est allé jusqu'à Kirkenes à la rencontre des Lapons (Photo Fonds Simenon et Roger-Viollet)

Having also tasted raw seal and whale ham, I know that the local food, if you stray from fish, is sometimes surprising. But of all his descriptions, the one Simenon made of the Sámis is certainly the most dated. There are about 30,000 in Norway today, and only some 20 or 30 continue to follow the roving life of the reindeer (Simenon was mistaken on their periods of migration from the plateaus to the coasts). The others have melted completely into the population, even though they have their own schools and a Parliament to perpetuate their traditions.

At Hammerfest, I met for a long time in his lavvu (a kind of local teepee) with Mikkel Sara, a highly intelligent Lapp of 44. His wife teaches the Sâmi language, and his three children are at the university of Tromsø. He divides his time between his reindeer, of which he doesn't want to reveal the number – "I don't ask you what you have in your bank account!" he smiles – and the sale of craft objects. "Only with my reindeer do I feel free," he says. "But it is also necessary to live in one's time – I have a portable telephone, a 4×4 and a souvenir business for tourists... The secret, you know, is adaptation."

There are also Lapps in Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Simenon went as far as Kirkenes, on the border of what was then still the USSR, to learn more about them and to stem his curiosity about the country of Tolstoy, Gogol and Chekhov, his favorite writers. For Kirkenes, such as it is, can be done quickly: "This is not a city, but an iron mine!" he writes.

Fifteen years later, in a radio interview with André Parinaud, he will confirm how highly he regards Gogol and his Dead Souls, and all the admiration he felt for Chekhov, who suffered to see to men suffer, and "wanted to repair destinies." Simenon also, who considered Maigret, his hero, "like a repairer of destinies"...

Did he actually "construct" his character above the Arctic Circle? On July 1, 1932, he confided to the newspaper La République, "Maigret was born for the first time on... Wait, that was three years ago. I was tormented by the desire to create a French, a truly French policeman. I had gone to look for tranquillity in Norway, on board my boat, like the beautiful ladies who go to give birth in their castles at Loir-et-Cher... And there, while breaking the ice, I put Maigret into the world, with joy, with love."

As always with Simenon, the truth is multiple or approximate. But isn't this version as good as another?


  1. All citations are taken from the series of articles Escales nordiques [Nordic Stopovers] and Pays du froid [Cold Country] (Omnibus, 2001).
  2. See the first article of this set. [Where was this note intended, the next-to-last paragraph?]

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